May 25, 1919 Irvington Westchester County New York, USA
Businesswoman. Generally recognized as the first African American millionaire, she was one of the first American women of any race to become a millionaire by her own earnings. She even owned a mansion, which is now a museum in Irvington, New York. She was born on a Delta, Louisiana plantation, the third child and second daughter of former slaves, and was orphaned in 1874. She worked in the cotton fields as a farm laborer and as a laundress around Vicksburg and Delta, Mississippi. At fourteen she married Moses McWilliams with whom she had her only child, Lelia, whose name would later become A'Lelia, in 1885. Mrs. Walker was twenty when McWilliams died and she A'Lelia moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she labored for the next 17 years as a laundress. Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker, a sales agent for a St. Louis African American newspaper, became a special friend of hers during this time. She received guidance for a hair care formula in a spiritual dream and, in 1905, decided to enter the cosmetics business. She moved to Denver to begin this phase of her career. C.J. Walker joined her there a year later and they married. She began calling herself Madam C. J. Walker because she felt it gave her products more appeal. She subsequently divorced Walker, whose aspirations did not match hers. As business grew, she and her daughter moved to Pittsburgh where they established Lelia College, a training facility for the Walker System of Hair Care. In 1910, Walker subsequently moved her entire operation to Indianapolis, where she built a factory, salon and another training school. In 1913, A'Lelia persuaded her mother to buy a house in Harlem as the New York base of her business. As Walker herself began spending more time there, she decided to move in 1916, and left the management of her Indianapolis operations to F.B. Ransom, her attorney and general manager, as well as Alice Kelly, the factory forewoman. Later that year, she built her dream house, a mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, called "Villa Lawaro" and which is now a museum. Mrs. Walker never forgot her humble beginnings and was a generous philanthropist and political activist who donated to African American schools, organizations and individuals. In 1918, she was the keynote speaker at several fund raisers for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Unfortunately, her health failed and she died the following year. Her daughter succeeded her as head of the firm. As a lasting tribute to her mother, she completed Indianapolis' Walker Building. The building, which covers a whole city block, has served as a social and cultural center for the African American community there. Its elegant theater, originally intended to provide a place where African Americans were permitted to attend movies, now is a popular site for a wide variety of groups to meet. Madam Walker's "rags to riches" story and generosity has made her a heroine in the annals of African American and feminist achievement. In 1998 the United States Postal Service honored her with a 32-cent commemorative stamp in the "Black Heritage" series.